The good ol’ Plan, Do, Check and Act (PDCA), who hasn’t heard about it? A managerial concept as old as the road to Methusalem it seems. We make a plan, we execute the plan, during the execution we keep a close eye on the ball and of course we take corrective action when things do not go according to the plan. Easy! When teams start improvement initiatives it seems as if immediately we are flooded by action lists, Gantt charts and project meetings. But is it really that easy? In fact, when taking a closer look and with a Lean eye, the plan in fact comprises two plans: the plan as a hypothesis and the plan as the actions to be taken to implement and evaluate the hypothesis; the plan within the plan as it were. “I beg your pardon?”
Surely this is the Plan?
I am sure you have been there before. An organization is having a problem in one of its operations and you have been asked to deal with it (i.e., eliminate or at least reduce it). You immediately get to work on the issue. One of the first things you probably do? Right: you need a plan! So you get together with he people involved and start brainstorming about the tasks, the interdependencies and sequence of actions, the time it all will take and of course the required resources. Next, this plan will be the key document in the project meetings that subsequently need to be put in the agenda. In those meetings we’ll make sure that the project will stay on track.
But very often I notice that teams do not go beyond this understanding of a “plan”. They lose themselves in the aspects of progress compared to plan, timeliness and budgets. Most of the project meetings are about reasons why the project is delayed, why the budget will not suffice and what the corresponding corrective actions should be. But is that really what is was about in the first place?
The Real Plan
Form a Lean perspective, the previous plan, however, isn’t the real plan. The real plan in PDCA is the hypothesis about how the team thinks to eliminate the problem, to eliminate the obstacle that is in the way on the road to a better target condition or future state. This plan is about the contents in the sense that it formulates countermeasures that will eliminate the root causes of the problem or obstacle. And that we need an action plan in order to deploy those countermeasures is fine, but the real plan – the one which it is all about – is of course the plan with which the team thinks to eliminate the problem. In this way, the action plan can be see as the plan within the plan as it were.
This also is the reason why many Lean adepts prefer to speak of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) instead of Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA). The word study better conveys the idea that it is about a thorough analysis of the deployment, effectiveness and consequences of the proposed and deployed countermeasures. And that is a lot more than just following up on deadlines! W. Edwards Deming also sketched the well-known Shewhart cycle with the word “Study” instead of “Check”. In a previous blog post (see The Broken PDSA Cycle) I have written about this before.
But Wait, a Plan is still a Plan, isn’t it?
But isn’t the action plan also a plan in the end? Sure, of course the plan within the plan is also a plan. This means that the action plan is also a hypothesis. A hypothesis that lays down the way in which the foreseen obstacles during the deployment of the countermeasures can be overcome. And yes, also these aspects of the plan can and should be studied during the Study phase to learn where things go wrong when the proposed countermeasures are not deployed correctly, timely and cost-effectively. Teams can (and should) also learn from this so that future countermeasures will be deployed more productively.
In short, just as there exists a plan within a plan, organizations can (and should) learn from studying the way work works, as from studying the way in which we actually try to improve the way work works. I am convinced that on both levels of learning, there is still a lot to be learned. What do you think?